West Bromwich Albion have returned to the Premier League after a two-year absence, with the Baggies having sealed promotion to the top tier after finishing runners-up behind Championship title winners Leeds United.
Also back in the big time is Slaven Bilic, who steered Albion to second spot in his first season in charge at the Hawthorns.
The 51-year-old Croatian had previously spent 29 months as head coach of West Ham United between 2015 and 2017.
What can Fantasy managers expect from Bilic and the Baggies in 2020/21, then?
Our three-part series on West Brom will feature an in-depth examination of their defence and attack but we begin with a closer look at the man in the dugout.
To aid our analysis, we spoke to the former assistant sports editor at the Express and Star and authority on all things Albion, Matt Wilson.
What is Bilic’s background?
Bilic’s playing career, which featured spells at West Ham and Everton, wound down at the turn of the millennium and his first stint in management – albeit as an interim boss – came a year later with hometown club Hajduk Split.
A period in joint-charge of the Croatian under-21 team preceded a six-year term at the helm of the senior national side, the high point of which was a quarter-final appearance at Euro 2008.
Returning to club management in 2012, Bilic’s ill-fated stay with Lokomotiv Moscow was followed by two years in charge of Besiktas and a run to the last 16 of the Europa League with the Turkish giants.
West Ham came calling in the summer of 2015, with Bilic leading the Hammers to finishes of seventh and 11th in his two full seasons in charge.
Here’s how the London club fared compared to the rest of the Premier League in those two campaigns (for the defensive stats, 1st means the tightest backline and 20th the leakiest):
|Goals scored||65 (4th=)||47 (11th)|
|Shots||558 (5th)||499 (9th)|
|Shots in the box||329 (7th)||270 (10th)|
|Shots on target||180 (5th)||134 (13th)|
|Big chances||67 (7th)||54 (12th)|
|Goals conceded||51 (10th=)||64 (15th)|
|Clean sheets||11 (7th=)||10 (11th=)|
|Shots conceded||521 (13th=)||505 (9th)|
|Shots in the box conceded||305 (12th)||329 (15th)|
|Shots on target conceded||159 (10th)||179 (13th)|
|Big chances conceded||69 (17th)||75 (18th)|
Bilic was sacked after only 11 matches of the 2017/18 campaign, with the Hammers sitting in 18th place.
Despite the inglorious end to his tenure in east London, he still left with the best points-per-match record (1.33) of any permanent West Ham manager in the Premier League era.
Bilic was dismissed after just five months of a spell with Saudi club Al-Ittihad in February last year, having won only four of the 17 games he took charge of.
Appointed West Brom manager in June 2019, the Croatian steered the Baggies to automatic promotion at the first attempt.
Top of the Championship at Christmas and 12 points clear of third place, the second half of the campaign was a more jittery affair as Brentford steadily narrowed the gap.
Only on the final day did Albion seal the runners-up spot, a 2-2 draw with QPR proving to be enough as their nearest challenges for promotion faltered at the last.
WHAT STYLE OF FOOTBALL DOES BILIC USE?
Bilic’s time in east London was characterised by some erratic team selections and formation choices, particularly towards the end of his tenure.
In the most successful of his seasons with the Hammers, a 4-2-3-1 was initially preferred before the adoption of a 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3.
There are parallels with Bilic’s debut seasons at West Ham and West Brom, tactics-wise.
Our WBA correspondent, Matt Wilson, told us:
He played 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 for pretty much most of the season. It was built on one solid central striker laying the ball back to the ‘second row’ of attackers, as he called them.
I wouldn’t recommend having two Albion strikers in your Fantasy team, as it’s focused on wingers.
He doesn’t normally deviate away from those two systems, and I can’t recall any run of games when a back three or back five was used. It may have been trialled once or twice but last season he found a system that worked pretty early on and stayed with it, until it needed a minor tweak to 4-3-3 towards the end of the season.
Romaine Sawyers, Jake Livermore and Matheus Pereira have been the mainstays of the midfield all season, with the latter playing as a number 10 in the 4-2-3-1 ahead of his two more withdrawn teammates.
A change to a 4-3-3 in the spring saw Pereira switch to the right flank (although still drifting infield) and both player and team saw some success in that new system following their post-Christmas wobble.
Sawyers, who registered one goal and one assist last season, isn’t likely to be much of a Fantasy asset himself but his contribution is key to the Baggies’ play, according to Matt Wilson:
Much of the play goes through Romaine Sawyers, who sits at the base of midfield alongside Jake Livermore and dictates play. Whether Sawyers, who came through Albion’s academy before leaving and then returning, will be allowed to do that in the Premier League remains to be seen.
While Pereira shone in the 4-3-3, Sawyers was perhaps not as influential at the base of the three-man midfield as he was in a double-pivot – so Bilic still has much to ponder on as Albion prepare for their top-flight return.
At the back, Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi have been the main centre-half pairing in 2019/20 (although Ahmed Hegazi challenged the former towards the end of the campaign) but there has been a changing cast of characters in the full-back positions.
Our Baggies expert, Matt Wilson, said:
Bilic also normally only likes to play with one attacking full-back so as not to unbalance the team, but quite often will throw on an attacking full-back onto the other side if we’re chasing the game. They have license to get up the pitch and support the wingers.
With Albion’s wide players sometimes playing more narrow rather than hugging the touchline, there has been scope for the full-backs to get forward.
Right-back Darnell Furlong, for example, registered 126 crosses from open play last season, just one fewer than winger Matt Phillips managed – and that was despite making eight fewer starts and losing his place in the second half of the campaign.
In terms of rotation, Bilic isn’t at the Graham Potter end of the scale: six of his regulars – Pereira, Livermore, Sawyers, Bartley, Ajayi and goalkeeper Sam Johnstone – made 37 or more league starts in 2019/20, with injury or suspension accounting for a number of the absences amongst that sextet.
The wide areas look the least secure, however.
Not one of Albion’s full-backs made more than 22 starts, while there was plenty of chopping and changing further forward, too: 16 of Filip Krovonic‘s 40 appearances, for example, came as a substitute.
Matt Wilson told us:
If the team is winning he’ll usually reward them with a settled side. In the Championship, you do sometimes have to rotate because of the number of games, so it was striking how often he named a very similar line-up when things were going well. But that doesn’t mean he sticks with teams that aren’t working.
Towards the end of the season, when we were struggling to get over the line, Bilic changed it up regularly, and on the last day, he played Callum Robinson up front for the first time (having only previously used him on the wing). He scored one and assisted another.
HOW DOES BILIC HANDLE THE PRESS?
An intelligent speaker and forthright with his opinions, Bilic has arguably been one of the stand-out pundits of the last decade in his sporadic stints on television, mostly at international tournaments.
That candidness has been a recurring theme throughout his managerial career, too, which bodes well for us Fantasy managers who like our head coaches to be open and honest – particularly when it comes to team news.
Matt Wilson explains:
Bilic is a journalist’s dream, a charismatic and passionate manager who has time for everyone. He wears his heart on his sleeve and often calls games correctly.
He’s usually pretty honest [with team news] actually! And happy to tell you if someone is unfit. Although that may change in the Premier League when every little detail is scrutinised by the opposition, so perhaps he’ll be a bit more closeted in order to try and gain some kind of advantage.
WHERE MIGHT BILIC STRENGTHEN IN THE SUMMER AND WHICH PLAYERS ARE IN DANGER OF LOSING THEIR PLACE?
We can likely expect the Baggies to be busy in the transfer market this summer.
For kick-off, there is the question over which and how many of their key four loanees – all of them attacking players – makes a permanent move to The Hawthorns.
Pereira, Krovinovic, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson all made crucial contributions at various points of the season, with Pereira set to rejoin after a buyout clause was triggered.
The former Express and Star journalist, Matt Wilson, reckons Bilic will look to strengthen in various positions and most notably up front, with Kenneth Zohore flopping and the likes of Hal Robson-Kanu perhaps not quite up to Premier League standard:
I think he’ll definitely look for a striker and winger, maybe a full-back and also a defensive central midfielder.
The strikers are probably most vulnerable to be honest, so Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin.
A new winger could shunt Kamil Grosicki or Kyle Edwards down the pecking order, even though both of those players are capable of threatening on their day.
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